Most of us are always putting on a show. Yes, it’s hard to admit because we like to think of ourselves as authentic individuals, as real people. But if we were to examine our lives with honesty, we’d soon recognize that we are all actors in the play called Life. Part of that show includes the cars we drive, the clothes we wear and the restaurants we brag about. Most women I know, regardless of their income level, will want to be sporting a designer handbag and logoed accessories of one fashion house or another. We smother ourselves with brands and labeled items as if we are personally Keeping Up with the Kardashians and as if the famous brands serve as rubber stamps of approval deeming us fit to pass inspection at the end of the assembly line. Oh, come on, of course it’s a show. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t run to Canal Street or its equivalent to get the knock-off of that same designer bag for $11. No, it’s not for show? You really love the bag. (Funny, this past December, Payless Shoes pulled a stunt and under another guise and venue held a launch party for a “new Italian designer”—shoppers believed they were purchasing luxury footwear only later to be told it was Payless Shoes shoes. They were stunned and undoubtedly embarrassed.)
The question is, “For whom are we putting on a show? Who is our audience? And I’m also not saying there is anything wrong with wanting to look nice. (I think it is very important.) What I am saying is we care a lot about clothes and appearance because we do realize it has its place in society.
Through the years, I always loved to hear how people bragged about going to restaurants that wouldn’t let them in if they weren’t properly attired. Clothes mattered. Every golf course has its rules as to what its members can and can’t wear. Scientific studies have proven that the clothes people wear—even while taking an exam—affect their performance. “The clothes we wear have power not only over others, but also over ourselves,” proffers a study by Northwestern University written in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The scientific term is called “enclothed cognition,” and the science goes on to prove the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes “affecting behavior, attitudes, personality, mood, confidence, and even the way we interact with others,” so much so that it can even influence one’s hormones. I can hear you saying to yourself, “Sure, I believe that’s true, I always said, ‘Dress for Success’.”
And yet, when it comes to religion and serving God, we think wardrobe doesn’t count. I myself once wrote, “I hardly doubt God is damning us by the hemline and neckline.
Long before our own stamp of approval on modern science’s “discovery,” the Torah itself, 3330 years ago, taught us the importance of clothing and how much more powerful clothes are than we could ever imagine.
To begin with, clothes have their origin in the sin of Adam and Eve. They were invented because of sin and their purpose ever since is to help elevate and redeem mankind so as to reopen the channel between man and God closed after eating the forbidden fruit.
In this past Torah reading of Tetzaveh, we learn about the detailed description that God gives to Moses regarding the clothing of the Kohanim who were to serve in the Temple: “You shall make vestments of sanctity…for dignity and adornment.” (Shemot 28:2). God was indeed the first fashion guru. He designed royal garb for those who would officiate in His house of worship because He knew it would increase the honor and reverence the children of Israel would have for the Temple and those appointed to serve in it (the Rambam). But it goes much deeper than that. According to the sages, the eight holy garments worn by the Kohain Hagadol (the high priest) each covered a certain body part and was designated to atone for a particular sin: moral debauchery, idolatry, murder, arrogance, corruption, injustice, slander, and impudence (Rabbi Elie Munk).
The mystical reverberations of the priestly garments are beyond our comprehension, but the lesson they seek to teach is very understandable. God does care about our outfits. The rabbis teach that even without the Temple, we are yet still a priestly kingdom and our respectable comportment and clothing matter. Through the years I’ve often heard people make fun of the Orthodox Jewish community and its fashion customs that vary from sect to sect. Laugh no longer because they are smarter than you and I when it comes to dressing for success—success in the eyes of the Almighty. And I can’t help but laugh at those who laugh while they themselves run after and deify designer wear which quickly become obsolete because it is manufactured in the world of deceptions, smoke and mirrors. Fashions may trend, but holy garbs mend. The outfits that religious Jews wear have spiritual impact; they subdue the animal soul and elevate our higher spirits—and seeing that God is the designer, they are just like pearls, they are classics, they never go out of fashion. Interesting how often that the same people who eschew the spiritual impact of clothing are the same ones sporting red string bracelets to ward off the evil eye, counterintuitively expressing that a whole outfit makes no difference to their well-being but a single thread can.
When a Jewish man wears a kippah (head covering), it affects him both spiritually as well as practically. He acknowledges that he stands for something, a higher being, and his behavior changes because of it and if it doesn’t, he should wear a bigger kippah because he needs a bigger reminder. I know some at this point are saying, “I know many Orthodox people who just look the part and they are the most dishonest, hypocrites I know.” You may be right–people are people–and some just like to play dress-up for “Halloween” and collect the treats their guise may afford them. It’s undoubtedly wrong and a sin, and feeds people’s excuses not to adhere to religion or its advocates. God will take them to task. And then there are those religious people who laud themselves as being superior to their fellow Jew or fellow human beings because of their religious garb while at the same time they are condescending, rude, rumpled, dirty, and lack humility. They, too, are inning greatly and defaming God and his Torah. That being said, the failures of others cannot be used as platforms for our excuses. We’ve all seen fat people in jogging suits; it hasn’t stopped us from wearing them to the gym. The appropriate attire helps greatly, but it can’t do the work for us. Without our own efforts, even the nicest suit is an empty suit.
Clothes matter. Being a cardiac Jew, a Jew in your heart, is not enough. Would you be satisfied being a cardiac millionaire? In fact, the heart is a fickle mentor and that is why the Torah tells us in Judaism’s most famous prayer, the Shema Yisrael, to not follow after our heart and after our eyes by which we will pulled to go astray. The Tzizit, the stringed garments that religious men wear as commanded in the Torah, act as visual reminders to keep God’s law, in addition to having mystical powers. They may not be red strings, but these work.
As a woman, the fashion struggle is very hard too. No one knows that better than me and my credit cards. But I’ve made great strides in covering up because I let wisdom enter where vanity and Satan used to live. “Teach us to count our days, then we shall acquire a heart of wisdom” (Psalms 90:12).
A few things have opened my eyes in addition to great rabbis. Some are as shallow as the reasons that controlled me. But from the cause comes the cure. First, I’ve been spending some time in Florida and see a community so consumed with looks, staying young and walking around naked, that it really turned me off. Then there were the older crowd inhumanly adverse to letting their age show, desperately clinging to a youth long gone via all kinds of procedures, ten tucks too many, and wearing revealing outfits and flashy garb that had me question, “Why don’t they see themselves?” “Who is their audience?” And then I remembered the words of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement: “If you see a fault in someone else, it’s a mirror to your own faults.”
Then on one particular visit to the Sunshine State, I was riding up an elevator with a religious women, no words exchanged. She was simple, modest, clean cut, head covered. When she exited, in my mind I thought, “She is the loveliest girl I’ve seen in this town of clowns so far.” It resonated. Obviously she wasn’t the first religious lady I’ve ever seen, nor was she the prettiest, but the contrast of worlds framed her beauty in such a way that made it ever more valued.
Secondly, a friend of mine regularly posts celebrities’ birthdays on his wall along with a group of pictures from stars’ heydays spanning to their current days. The ravishing beauties who were once society’s half-naked heartthrobs are now over-bleached over-botoxed, gnarled, unrecognizable old ladies who are certainly better off clothed. And it was an eye opener. Their desperation to stay young and relevant against the firm hand of time and how meaningless their lives have been despite their few days of applause, made me feel great pity for them. I simply questioned, “Who was their audience and where has it gone?” No one is left, for most not even husbands or lovers, just more of the likes of me staring with jaw dropped saying, “OMG, so sad, scary, they really did not age well.” It made me ask myself, who is my audience in my own little life show: the construction worker who will whistle; someone else’s guy; the men who toss you a nod and like you for all the wrong reasons; the other girls competing to see who can walk around more naked and get the most guys to stare? I realized that my only reliable audience and the only one I ever really cared about was God.
And God wants His children clothed properly. That is why the first thing He does after punishing Adam and Eve is to put clothes on them. In the Torah, God says, “Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.” When reaching up to God, He demands modesty from men and women. Even the Kohanim, who by merit of their positions and other virtues had a close relationship with the Almighty, were specifically commanded regarding modesty. The sages teach that what is covered is blessed and also what is truly treasured is hidden, not flaunted. Perhaps we should be as excited to dress for God’s club as we are for the country club or golf club or for that fancy restaurant you can’t get into without a jacket. Perhaps we should stop being embarrassed to dress like Jews and stop fearing we will miss out on something by clearly defining and showing who we are.
As a young journalist in the TV industry, I was among the other young ambitious ladies who would hope to get into the elevator with the right person and get discovered and be cast as the next Barbara Walters. I never thought that that elevator would be in a Florida condo and that the person would be a religious woman I’d never met and by looking at her I would come to discover myself—and the only audience who was ever worth putting on a “show” for: God.